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Parents turn out to support Swain principal

A group of nearly 45 parents and friends came out to show their support for embattled Swain County West Elementary School Principal Rick Abel at a school board meeting Monday night (June 8), but left with few answers to their questions surrounding Abel’s departure.

Concerned parents believe Abel was pushed out, claiming he was wrongfully terminated, but have struggled to find answers as to why. A banner held by supporters of the popular principal at the meeting read, “Join hands for Mr. Abel.”

School board members made it clear from the beginning that they would not respond on personnel matters relating to Abel. The school board claims that Abel resigned from his post in mid-April.

“Board members will not respond to individuals who address the board, except to clarify,” said school board member Mellie Burns. “If we have a specific question, we will ask.”

Chairman Charles McMahan assured the audience that “there’s nothing secretive,” about the board’s personnel policy and lack of answers.

Some of the public speakers referenced a widespread belief that Abel’s status as an outsider and possible personality conflicts with school establishment led to his termination.

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“Mr. Abel and his wife are fine people,” said Jerry Shook, a parent from West Elementary where Abel worked. “They are new at this game that we play in Swain County, and don’t need to be treated that way by our county.”

Sara Abel also worked for the school system as a high school guidance counselor. The school board accepted her resignation at the meeting.

Shook urged the board members to search for answers, since the administration has refused to comment on the issue.

“Tonight I come to you with a challenge that you listen to the voice of the people,” Shook said. “Your integrity as a board is being questioned by your actions. You as a board need to find out what’s going on.”

Other speakers mentioned the atmosphere being cultivated in the Swain County School District, alleging that there is a fear of challenging the status quo.

“I was told that situations like this have been going on for so long that nobody could do anything about it,” said Katie Butler, PTO President. “Teachers basically felt it was impossible to do their jobs educating their kids.”

McMahan cautioned speakers from naming specific school administrators who they felt was responsible for cultivating such an atmosphere.

“You may not talk about any problem you have with school employees,” McMahan warned Butler.

Richard Allison, another speaker, added to Butler’s comments about the school atmosphere.

“Teachers have a fear of losing their jobs because of parochial, in-grown attitudes,” Allison alleged.

Teachers were conspicuously absent from the school board meeting, with only one or two in attendance.

Questions surrounding Abel’s resignation continue to grow. Abel and his wife, Sara, were recruited to the Swain County school district from Florida for a two-year contract. Then, on April 20, the school board voted to accept Abel’s resignation. However, Abel told parents at a recent PTO meeting that he never resigned from his position.

The Swain County school administration has said their attorney has advised them not to discuss Abel’s resignation.

The board of education is also continuing to stay mum on the issue. After the meeting, McMahan said he appreciated the audience’s input but stopped short of promising an investigation into the matter.

“I can’t take any action by myself,” he said. “The board has to act as a whole.”

Concerned county residents and parents continue to press for answers.

“I don’t know the details, I know what I hear,” said Gail Findlay, who attends church with the Abels. “I know it sounds like it’s really been a terrible situation at West Elementary. I just want to say I’m sad for our community, and I’m sad for the school system. I wish with all my heart there is something else that could have been done so their reputations as teachers can be intact.”

Shook made perhaps the strongest statement, asking the board to reinstate Abel into his position as principal.

“If this man has done nothing morally wrong, then we should do something morally right,” Shook said.

However, the school system has already selected a replacement for Rick Abel. The school board voted unanimously at its meeting to appoint Mike Treadway as the new West Elementary School principal. Treadway is currently the assistant principal at Swain County Middle School.

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